Investigative Process Ignored


    Misinformation, slander, and deceit. The WWW provides a mass media outlet to anyone that chooses to utilize it. But certain professions have a duty to ensure that what they publish is based on sound investigative principles.

    Investigative news outlets and law enforcement agencies alike have a duty to verify every detail to be considered as fact. However, there have been several high profile incidents involving these two professions that fall short of the mark.

    While we examine one of these incidents we will also examine a popular internet movement that stood strong as a new medium by providing checks and balances to the real world - Blogging. But first, we will take a look at what can happen when ethics, professional standards, and simple investigative fundamentals are ignored.

    Misconduct of Elected Official

    During March of 2006, an exotic dancer was hired to entertain at a party hosted by the Duke University Lacrosse Team. The exotic dancer subsequently reported that several of the Duke team members raped her during the event.

    District Attorney Mike Nifong immediately took center stage on the news podium and began issuing statements of accusation directed at the Duke team members. These statements were made prior to the completion of the police investigation and suspiciously close in time frame to Nifong's campaign for reelection.

    Here are several points to consider at this early stage of the investigation:

    • There were no witnesses found that could verify the dancer's allegations.
    • Accounts of what happened pointed to the allegation as unlikely.
    • The dancer has made similar allegations in the past.
    • The dancer's account of the incident changed several times during the course of the investigation.
    • The results of the DNA analysis were pending.

    DNA taken from the dancer was discovered to originate from several men, none of whom were members of the Duke Lacrosse Team. D.A. Mike Nifong was forced to resign from his position and was subsequently sued by the accused team members and stripped of his license to practice law.

    Shocking is the fact that Nifong was made aware of the DNA results six month before defense attorneys discovered the results (Adcock & Whoriskey, 2007). Nifong claimed that he did not take notes during his meeting with lab technicians and as a result, he quickly forgot about the results (Adcock & Whoriskey, 2007). Equally shocking, this meant that lab personnel and possibly police department officials were aware of the results, but did nothing to bring justice to the accused - bordering on conspiracy.

    What does it take to verify, confirm, substantiate, corroborate?

    This is a subjective question and every situation uniquely dictates its own criteria. The investigator has a duty to satisfy an ethical standard and must continually second guess judgment, scrutinize evidence, and cross examine statements. Satisfaction with results may ultimately rest with someone other than the investigator. But, rest assured "he said, she said" will never satisfy the professional standard. By that, we are referring to statements made by individuals that cannot be corroborated in any way by independent witnesses and/or physical evidence.

    Two initial questions must be answered when considering statements by multiple subjects who witnessed an incident or were involved in a situation.

    1. Do the subjects know one another?
    2. Did they collaborate prior to interviewing?

    There are many forks in the road beyond these initial questions. How exhaustive the process will be may be determined by many factors including budgetary constraints. Of course, when lives, livelihood, and reputations are at stake, the jurisdictional authorities have no choice but to exhaust all resources. The media on the other hand has the choice to publish, or not to publish

    Political Strategist Masquerading as Investigative Reporter

    September 2004, CBS's 60 Minutes and Dan Rather ran a news story and presented four documents pointing to possible misconduct involving President George W. Bush's service in the Air National Guard (ANG) during the early 1970's. The timing of the story was suspiciously close to the 2004 presidential elections pitting John Carrie against Bush.

    Documents that were presented by Dan Rather were supposedly memos written by Bush's ANG commanding officer indicating that Bush did not fulfill his time requirements in the guard unit. Just hours after the show aired, internet bloggers examined the documents and determined the font type used had not been invented when the documents were supposedly written. This led to an array of questionable circumstances surrounding the documents. The identity of the subject whom supplied the documents to CBS was shrouded in mystery as well. The originals were claimed to have been destroyed, CBS only had copies (Killian documents, 2008).

    CBS consulted with four document examiners prior to running the story, but there was no definitive opinion on the authenticity. There were points for and against the authentication. However, it took several internet bloggers only hours to definitively point out that the documents could not be authentic based on the newer font used.

    The bottom line is that CBS acted unethically by reporting the documents as authentic. Dan Rather spent more than two weeks denying the facts while refusing to believe that bloggers could somehow have some bearing on his credibility.

    Best Evidence

    Authentication of evidence is all about tracing the origin of the copy. If the actual evidence in question is in possession, then we have the "best evidence". Copies of the original do not hold up to the standard.

    When there is mostly circumstantial evidence, consider a "preponderance of evidence", in which every piece of the puzzle is considered in total. If a reasonable person can draw a conclusion based on this total, then we may have something to proceed with. However, as mention above in "What does it take to confirm, substantiate, corroborate?" every circumstance dictates it own criteria.

    In the case of the CBS story, Dan Rather asserted that unauthenticated copies of official documents in question were authentic. This ethical breach led to his fall as well as the ousting of several other CBS employees involved in the production.


    The information age has equalized the playing field in the arena of news. Unfortunately, political partisanship still permeates this media and influences stories that should be presented in an unbiased manner. As observed in the Duke Lacrosse case, politics poisons even the highest of sworn offices. But individual professionals can still maintain professional standards by drawing conclusions from the best evidence available. Ethical standards demand it. Corroboration of statements is only the beginning of the process.


    Adcock, Sylvia and Whoriskey, Peter (2007): Prosecutor in Duke Case Says He Intends to Resign Teary Nifong Concedes His Mistakes, Apologizes To Accused and Families. Washington Post.
    - Archived PDF

    Killian documents (retrieved August 2008).
    - Archived PDF